Thirty-thousand feet above Providence, Rhode Island, Carmine Prioli was going in circles.
It was 1976, and Prioli’s Eastern Airlines flight from Raleigh to Boston was in a holding pattern, unable to land due to fog.
Prioli, a 30 year-old with a doctorate in American literature, was traveling back to his parents’ house after a job interview for a professorship at N.C. State University.
If he didn’t get the job, Prioli’s fallback would be teaching literature to Navy personnel at sea.
“On a destroyer somewhere in the North Atlantic,” Prioli said.
Forty-one years later, Prioli is in Hillsborough at Cedar Ridge High School’s wood shop, asking junior Colin Davis if he can identify a mistake Prioli made on a preliminary cut.
It is the pair’s fourth meeting, and the project is competing with Davis’ other school activities, including a wrestling tournament that afternoon.
Prioli, the retired American lit professor, has turned to wood as his medium for connecting with students.
“When I mention that I’m working with kids in a wood shop, people often respond by saying something like, ‘That’s good because not everyone is going to college,'” Prioli said.
“My view is, if you devalue making things with your hands, you are not developing yourself fully as a human being.”
Prioli and his wife, Elizabeth, were inspired to try woodworking after their sons John and Andrew took courses from Keith Yow, the instructor in charge of the award-winning program at Cedar Ridge.
Prioli and Elizabeth soon learned about a grassroots woodworking group in their own neighborhood known as the Chapel Hill Woodturners.
“You learn more in one day with a group than you do in a month going it alone,” Prioli said.
‘All these guys’
At 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday, the Chapel Hill Woodturners shop is already full of club members working on projects.
A dentist uses oversized hand tools that look like sharpened screwdrivers to shape and contour a block of spinning wood.
In every corner of the shop there is a wood lathe with a chunk of oak, maple, holly, or cherry in its grip, being trimmed and shaved by career psychologists, psychiatrists, chemical engineers, and a retired milkman.
“All these guys are my students,” said Frank Penta, 76, founder and proprietor of the Chapel Hill Woodturners.
On a tour of the second floor of the shop built expressly for woodturning, Penta points out assorted items in what is a turned wood showroom, from hefty pepper mills and pizza cutters to platters featuring wood of different colors married into patterns that zig and zag.
“I sat behind a desk and I never would have considered myself an artist,” Penta said. “And Carmine would say the same thing: You gotta try – you can’t be afraid not to.”
Is Penta a mentor?
“Absolutely,” Prioli said. “Frank is the master.”
Prioli and Elizabeth arrived at the woodturning club together after each had completed an introductory course in woodworking at an area community college.
“We had to learn a lot of skills all over again,” Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth, who retired from a career in textile design last December, has since teamed up with Penta to experiment with turning combinations of wood and veneer in ways that could mimic quilting designs.
“You really don’t know what you’re going to get,” Elizabeth said. “Thin (veneer), cut at angles, becomes thick.”
Donations to charity
The club donates many of its creations to charitable organizations. One example is a small storage jar Prioli turned from Texas mesquite. Chocolate in color, with a satiny finish, the jar contains a slip of paper bearing its destination: a scholarship fund based in New York City in honor of a former student of Prioli’s, Chris Hondros, who lived and died as a photojournalist.
Prioli said he fashioned the jar in the style of Acoma Pueblo pottery, and that it was his intention to turn the mesquite into “something within the cultural context from which it came.”
There were surprises along the way. “I found a couple of bullets (embedded) in the mesquite,” Prioli said.
This summer, Prioli and Elizabeth will be teaching a woodturning course together at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. Later this year the pair will be traveling to Ireland to learn about Irish woodturning.
In the event that their flight is held up by fog, Prioli has been through it before, and can take comfort in knowing that it all worked out, far beyond his expectations.
For it was fog over Boston 41 years ago that started a conversation on board that delayed Eastern Airlines flight carving circles in the air: a conversation between Prioli, who would soon be accepting an offer to teach at N.C. State University, and a 24 year-old textile designer from Scotland, Miss Elizabeth Hood.
Steve Bydal: firstname.lastname@example.org